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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Deep thinking

What I see missing in a lot of thinking (my own included) is what is sometimes called analysis or getting down to the structures behind the phenomena.  C Wright Mills called it "the sociological imagination."

Last week, a group of us visited the former planning director for DC. We wanted to get her perspective on the regional housing market forces that are resulting in the "new segregation" of class and race. She had none. She called it a matter of "supply and demand" and offered solutions that would help the left-behinds or, in this case, the gentrified-out develop more social cohesion and skills. Nice things to do, but hardly getting to the roots of the problem.

I also heard a talk by a noted journalist, author, and expert on the Middle East. He saw the problem and especially the American response in the Middle East as a deficiency of leadership--which also led him into inconsistencies regarding the use of hard or soft power. I heard him say little about the structural issues of the political-economic order both in the Middle East and in the US. Admittedly I was primed for this in my current reading of Francis Fukuyama's Political Order and Decline.

Last Sunday, another Post writer discussed the importance of the idea, while claiming that the "liberal" or "progressive" idea is the source of genocide. I would never deny the importance of ideas. But by disengaging ideas from their social historical context and the structure of power, as I think this writer often does, is a great disservice and a sign of shallow thinking. Ironically, that thinking often gives succor to those with the grand ideas to force them violently unto others.

What I found missing in all of them is a depth of thinking that sees the cruelty of terror and genocide, the decline of US power, and the continuing fragmentation of class and culture in their historical and sociological context. Sure we need education, moral teaching, personal therapies including mindfulness, good ideas, and more social cohesion. But beyond that, or maybe even to make those solutions feasible, we need to get to the roots in our social, economic, and political habits of behavior (i.e. institutions) that are indeed promoting and reenforcing, usually unintentionally, the bad results for which we are seeking solutions.

The political debates, political pundit opinions, and even teachings from the pulpit often display a lack of analysis and deep thinking. These preachers and opinionators do not think beyond the words, beliefs, ideas, and thoughts to their roots in our habits of thought and action and in the stories and assumptions that are rattling around in our heads. And we get hooked into their lazy thinking.

We quickly choose "sides" like we are watching a football game. We blame the opposition instead of trying to understand where they are coming from. We call them stupid or evil because they are not seeing things the way we do. We assume our own exceptionalism and righteousness. We believe the world is going to hell and the big war between the infidels (those who are not on our side) and us believers is coming. And by accepting "solutions" that correspond to our own stereotypes and prejudices, we encourage the very patterns of behavior that reinforce these stereotypes and prejudices.

Or as a mentor once counseled me: Don't believe in your own bullshit.

Yes, we all utter bullshit--usually without recognizing it. But if we do not examine it and instead keep saying the same thing over and over, if we just blame "bad people" (and try to remove them), if we mix cautious thoughtfulness with weakness, if we enforce "true solutions" without understanding the roots of the problems, if we just accept a proposition or a policy because it fits with our unexamined assumptions and the stories that we were told as kids, we are not thinking. We are parroting, but not thinking.

We need a return to the "sociological imagination." This thinking sees the intersection between biography and history in the structures of power, of self interest, and of myth that are operating usually unnoticed. To quote Mills: "When we understand social structures and structural changes as they bear upon more intimate scenes and experiences, we are able to understand the causes of individual conduct and feelings of which men in specific milieux are themselves unaware."

So, planning director, when you say it is just supply and demand that make up housing market forces, you are not thinking very deeply. You are not considering how supply and demand are being manipulated in the participating institutions, usually subsidized by well-meaning social policy, that maintain the patterns of behavior by which some win and many lose.

And so, pundits, by making the bad stuff happening in the world as primarily a conflict in ideas and leadership, you distract us from the unnoticed patterns of behavior that are causing the bad stuff to happen.

Think, people, think!

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